San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As Minnesota’s winter temperatures dropped to -20 (not including windchill) this month, I was beyond relieved that I had planned a quick trip to Puerto Rico with my friend Mariah to escape the cold and potentially put some color in my otherwise translucent skin.  We had gotten lucky with standby openings on a flight to San Juan with a connection in Charlotte, and despite the jetway initially getting frozen to the plane before takeoff in Minnesota, it looked like it would be nothing but sunshine and mojitos for the next week.

Traveling abroad in a touristy destination during high-season proved to be much more difficult than I expected. The biggest difference I found in traveling to Puerto rico (a part of the United States of America, mind you) was that it was hard to be independent, and it was expensive. By independent, I mean having the ability to get to the major attractions and have great experiences with ease, as there is very minimal public transportation. Renting a car or taking chartered buses from hotels are the only options, both expensive when one compares them to a quick train ticket in a major European city. This is a precise example of how the ease of traveling in Europe can jade the new globetrotter (someone like me) into thinking that seeing it all and doing it all will just take some map-reading and enthusiasm.

But I learned. Fortunately, a friend of mine has family that live in Puerto Rico and they were kind enough to drive us around and host us during our stay. Initially, my plan was to stay at a youth hostel, but this mission was quickly aborted upon discovering it was nestled between one mediocre neighborhood and an area you wouldn’t want to walk through at night. The Palace Hostel, in the Miramar neighborhood, would have been okay for us to stay at the entire trip, the staff is super nice and helpful, but it’s definitely not a luxurious spot to pass your vacation at. Puerto Rico, while being a perfectly safe place to travel, has its dangerous spots that are best avoided if you want to make it home with all of your valuables.

Ok, moving on from safety and lodging concerns.  While it is a fairly small island, 110 miles long and 35 miles wide, Puerto Rico boasts a huge host of amazing experiences and adventures. I would plan being there for at least a week to get adequate beach/relaxation time as well as experiences in the natural wonders Puerto Rico has to offer.

I’ll start with a great, free activity that takes up just a few hours of a day, a great choice for if the sun isn’t shining so bright or the scattered showers of the day last longer than 10 minutes

The Bacardi Factory!

La Casa Bacardi, Spanish for the Bacardi House or House of Bacardi, is a great, FREE tourist attraction located in Cataño, a short drive from Old San Juan and Isla Verde. Be careful to follow directions carefully, as the signage for the building barely exists. The tour begins on a little trolley and lasts about 45 minutes, ending with a trip to the Bacardi gift shop and the bar, where you can enjoy the two FREE drink tickets that they give you. Pretty sweet deal, tour and drinks, completely free of charge.  I learned a lot about the history of Puerto Rico and Bacardi and learning about Bacardi drinks such as the development of the Daquiri, Mojito and Cuba Libré (particularly interesting for me as a pseudo-bartender)

Condado Beach/Ocean Park

Condado is a great beach and neighborhood of bars and restaurants just outside of San Juan. The beach is beautiful, although a bit rough, and the hotels that are situated on it are great options to stay at (or steal beach chairs from for temporary use if you aren’t staying there). We spent a day at the beach here and it was a great, relaxing experience. The best part is that there is a Walgreens a block away from the beach and the Walgreen’s in Puerto Rico sell liquor, so restocking midday was easy.
Ocean park was another beautiful beach location, with calmer ocean waves and soft, white crystalline sand. Beware of parking issues in these locations however, street parking is harder to come by and can pose a threat of frustration, but once it is found, the bliss of being on the beach will wash away any irritation.

Nightlife – BRAVA! 
Located in the San Juan Hotel, Brava is a swanky and enticing nightclub, one of the best on the entire island, and is an amazing place to spend a night drinking and dancing. The cover charge for individuals not staying in the hotel is $20, free if you’re a guest of the hotel, which is one of the most beautiful establishments I have ever been in. The chandelier in the main lobby would fill my entire living room in my Minneapolis house and the hotel boasts live music and other scores of entertainment, including a casino. Definitely a great place to check out if you want to get your party on and make great memories (or not remember anything at all)
Also – their bar in the main lobby boasts the best mojitos I have ever had in my entire life. While they are more expensive than you’d find other places, well worth the money.
FunCat Catamaran Tours – Amazing Day Trip
 
Spending a day on a boat in the Caribbean, with rum punch, food and snorkeling? Sign me up. FunCat Catamaran tours take off from a marina in Farjado, about a 45 minute to an hour drive outside of San Juan. It’s $70 per person for the tour, plus $30 if you choose to be picked up from a hotel in San Juan area. We left the port around 10am and set sail for an abandoned Spanish Virgin Island, not far from where scenes from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie was filmed. I scoured the area but sadly was unable to find Johnny Depp anywhere. Oh well.
They serve you lunch, rum punch and beer, all while sailing around this part of the Caribbean and making two stops to snorkel (the tour company provides snorkeling gear and floatation devices). This was by far my favorite experience during my time in Puerto Rico, as I hadn’t snorkeled in years since my family had done a vacation in Mexico.  It was really great to swim around in the crystal blue water and see different fish and coral species. We were lucky to have a beautiful, sunny day to experience this and tan magnificently all at the same time.

There were still several things I did not get to do due to lack of time and planning, so I recommend anyone reading this and planning a trip to Puerto Rico make time for these. I was definitely a bit bummed not being able to experience these attractions firsthand, but I suppose it’s always good to leave a reason to return to a place, always have something to go back for.

1. Arecibo Caves – Beautiful Caves located about an hour drive outside of San Juan
2. Bioluminescent Bay – Locations in Vieques and Farjado. Vieques is a separate island which can be accessed by plane or ferry ride, plan on staying overnight if you do the bio bay tour there. A bioluminescent bay is a bay that glows in the dark due to the presence of dinoflagellates, or bacteria that glow when stimulated. As a biology major, this was a huge thing I wanted to do.
3. El Yunque Rainforest – a beautiful park reserve hosting waterfalls, beautiful foliage and a great day trip for an avid eco-friendly tourist.

Puerto Rico was a great winter getaway and a learning experience for me as a naive traveler, still learning how to get around in different locations around the world.  It was more fun than I ever could have bargained for and I definitely look forward to going back someday in the future.

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